Homes Are Where the Art Is

What can slow Cleveland's slide? Some creative political action -- and people

The 2010 Census could show that Cleveland's population has plummeted since the last official count, and federal funds for everything from roads to schools could follow. So the prospect of an influx of tax-paying, neighborhood-stabilizing residents is intriguing — even if they are artists.

In North Collinwood, community activist Cindy Barber has an idea to pump life back into the city's sparse neighborhoods where weeds grow around shuttered houses. The vacant homes are a tough sell to would-be homeowners who can buy a foreclosed property in Garfield Heights or Euclid for $50,000, where the schools are reputedly better and crime is lower.

Last year, the county responded to the foreclosure crisis by creating the Cuyahoga Land Bank, a corporation whose mission is "to help reclaim properties, protect the county tax base and restore real-estate markets. It will work cooperatively with cities, other units of government, lenders, and individual property owners, to acquire troubled real estate and return it to productive use." Since April, the Land Bank has acquired around 1,200 properties, some foreclosed by government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, some lost to delinquent taxes, some donated by owners.

Barber is just one of the people who believes if the county can't sell its empty houses, instead of tearing them down, it should let them go cheap — and not to profit-minded developers with questionable motives, but to out-of-state artists.

"I think artists are willing to take more risks and live on less money," says Barber, who's president of the board of the nonprofit Northeast Shores Development Corporation and co-owns the concert club Beachland Ballroom. "Forget Medical Mart — our neighborhoods are so deteriorated. We need people to move in and start small businesses. Let people be creative in a more supportive way. We'd spread the money out a lot further."

It's an idealistic notion, but not an unrealistic one. It could happen in Cleveland. It's happened in other cities, big and small.

The aptly named Artist Relocation Program worked in Paducah, Kentucky, a rural town with a population of about 25,000. Since 2000, the program has attracted more than 45 new homeowner-artists to a once-blighted neighborhood. Artists from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. relocated to a 20-square-block area, where they restored historical homes that had become drug houses, and then vacant frames. The town tweaked its zoning to allow the residential neighborhood to double as a commercial zone.

In the Paducah program, eager local banks checked applicants' background to see if they could make payments on a 100-percent-financed loan for up to 400 percent of the run-down properties' current market value. According to a report by the city, the artists turned the neighborhood around, eventually attracting private investments totaling between $12 and $14 million, and spurring some of the neighborhood's first new construction in 50 years. Paducah credits the artist recruitment program for a $10 million increase in tourism.

It's also worked closer to home, in a more comparable area. Two hours to the east of Cleveland, Pittsburgh has the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative program, a joint project between two community development groups. Over 12 years, it has developed a 10-block section along Penn Avenue, a major artery that connects downtown with nearby urban neighborhoods. Dotted with wholesalers, taverns and restaurants, it's roughly comparable to Euclid Avenue or Detroit Avenue.

The Penn Avenue Arts Initiative has helped rehab and redistribute a dozen foreclosed and vacant buildings. It's helped recruit artists and craftsmen who have converted abandoned storefronts and empty factories into bike shops and cafés. In the Pittsburgh plan, the properties are always cheap, but never free. It's sold properties from $5,000 to $100,000, depending on whether they go to an individual or group and their goals. Initiative manager Matthew Galluzzo says the program actively partners with its recruits. He describes "a rigorous process" that helps connect artisans with banks, teaches them to function as self-sufficient contractors or helps them find reliable labor.

According to Galluzzo, the Initiative facilitated $58 million of real-estate development. After a dozen years, he reports, 20 percent of the property in the area is now arts-related. Over 10 years, according to their figures, the vacancy rate has dropped from 45 percent to 19 percent. Public-safety rates have increased, and crime has shifted from violent incidents to the kind more typical of a shopping mall. Now on weekend afternoons, the area draws suburbanites and out-of-towners looking for anything from ice cream to a sculpture to liven up a living room.

"From a perceptual and branding position, I think we've done more to stabilize this neighborhood than any other initiative I've seen," says Galluzzo. "We've got a regional brand now, a regional identity."

In Cleveland, all the people who could help make such a program a reality say they'd like to see it happen.

"Having artists in the neighborhoods is a desirable thing," says Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, the Cuyahoga Land Bank's top executive and one of the main drivers behind its formation. "It's a positive. If I think about neighborhoods that are fun and desirable and edgy, I think those are artist colonies. They're exciting, they tend to be safer, and I think they attract other types of people and businesses."

Tom Schorgl, president and CEO of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC), has been trying to create an artist relocation program. In 2008, the nonprofits arts and service agency issued a study called From Rust Belt to Artist Belt: Challenges and Opportunities in Rust Belt Cities.

"It's something I would say has got some great potential," says Schorgl. "When you look at the factors that attract artists to the community, Cleveland has one of the broadest and deepest infrastructures for artists anywhere in the United States — colleges, universities, clubs, museums, galleries, an orchestra."

Since the study was published, CPAC has shared its vision at two conferences at CSU. At the first one, in May 2008, the organizers expected 50 people. The turnout was 125, drawing eager sets of ears from Michigan to Pennsylvania, who believed handy artists and creative politicians could help turn the region around. Schorgl says it's time for Cleveland to do more than talk about it.

"Cleveland has all these great neighborhoods where the houses could be rehabilitated," says Schorgl. "You're working with neighborhoods to become a partner in the neighborhood. You live and work in the community."

Later this year, CPAC plans to commission research that will help determine which neighborhoods would be best for an artist-recruitment program.

Barber's Northeast Shores Development Corporation owns six properties in the North Collinwood neighborhood. The board would like to give them away to artists who could rehab them and start making the community a more inviting place. But they're in various states of repair. And under the city's conventional framework, the corporation can't give them away until they meet occupancy codes. Says Barber, "We're so bogged down in bureaucracy that nothing's happened."

Creating a retail area like Pittsburgh's in a residential area like Collinwood would likely require zoning changes — which would require approval by the administration and city council — if artists wanted to live, work and sell in the same buildings. But the basic premise of signing over houses to artists who can handle a Sawzall and hammer — that can be done now. Before the census brings bad news.

"It could be a reality within weeks," says Rokakis. "It's speculation, but we have product. It's complicated, but we'll do it."

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